* World Food Programme (WFP) chief making four-day visit
* Agency aims to help 650,000 women and children each month
* WFP programme in North Korea only 19 percent funded
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, May 8 (Reuters) - The United Nations food agency said its chief would visit North Korea on Tuesday to look into boosting food distributions, in the latest sign of an opening in the isolated country.
The four-day trip comes amid a warming of relations between the North and South Korea and in the build-up to planned talks on denuclearisation with U.S. President Donald Trump. The World Food Programme (WFP) said it had been in the North for decades, but the visit would focus on stepping up support.
About 70 percent of North Korea’s population of 25 million is “food insecure”, meaning they struggle to avoid hunger, and one in four children under five is stunted from chronic malnutrition, according to the WFP. A 2015 drought worsened the situation, it says.
The agency currently aims to assist 650,000 women and children there each month providing fortified cereals and biscuits.
“Funding shortfalls have meant that rations have had to be reduced and suspended in some cases,” WFP said in a statement coinciding with the start of the May 8-11 visit by WFP executive director David Beasley.
It gave no details, but figures on the WFP website show that its $52 million appeal for 2018 is only 19.2 percent funded. Switzerland, Sweden and France are among the leading donors.
“WFP has been working in DPR Korea for more than two decades, helping to strengthen food security in the country and provide nutritious food to women and children,” Beasley said.
“This week, I will visit schools and nurseries to meet some of the mothers and young children WFP is supporting, as well as to understand the needs of the operation, which at this point is under-funded.”
WFP and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are among only a few aid agencies with access to North Korea, which suffered famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to three million people.
UNICEF said in January that an estimated 60,000 North Korean children face potential starvation. It blamed international sanctions targeting the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes for exacerbating the situation by slowing aid deliveries and making fuel scarcer and more expensive. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by Andrew Heavens)